Tag: creepy


Module 4: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

September 29th, 2012 — 10:09am

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman was published in 2008. It, like many of Gaiman’s other books, is a fantasy book that presents the supernatural as completely natural and present in the world — in this case, a boy is raised by ghosts and lives in a graveyard. The plot is enhanced by illustrations by Dave McKean. The Graveyard Book won the Newbery Medal in 2009.

SUMMARY

The book opens with the murder of a family: a mysterious man Jack has been sent to kill an entire family, but one member escapes — the toddler boy of the family manages to leave the house and find his way to a nearby graveyard. The ghosts that inhabit it hold a council and decide that they need to save the boy (as the man Jack is still trying to find him) and so give him the freedom of the graveyard and swear to protect him. Two ghosts, Mr. and Mrs. Owens, agree to adopt him and Silas, a mysterious figure who is suggested to be a vampire, agrees to serve as his guardian, as he can leave the graveyard and get food and clothes for the boy. The ghosts christen him Nobody Owens, Bod for short.

Each chapter serves as a different time period and adventure in Bod’s life, from meeting a human girl who is visiting the graveyard and discovering that he has powers that she doesn’t, befriending the ghost of a witch, and taking lessons and meals from a werewolf. The denizens of the graveyard strive to protect Bod from the man Jack who is still searching for him and trying to kill him.

IMPRESSIONS

The Graveyard Book was a fun book, though I felt that the development of Bod’s character was a little weak. I was more interested in the “people” in the graveyard and found that Bod sometimes was a minor character in my mind. Though he aged in the book, there wasn’t a lot of growth — he acted pretty much the same through the entire plot, from age five to eighteen. I enjoyed the fantasy aspects and felt that each chapter both fit in with the action as well as stood apart. It had a nice amount of weirdness without an overwhelming amount of frightening moments and gore, which is impressive considering that the book opens with a serial killing. It seems perfect for the Newbery award, which I associate with younger readers.

PROFESSIONAL REVIEWS

A lavish middle-grade novel, Gaiman’s first since Coraline , this gothic fantasy almost lives up to its extravagant advance billing. The opening is enthralling: “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.” Evading the murderer who kills the rest of his family, a child roughly 18 months old climbs out of his crib, bumps his bottom down a steep stairway, walks out the open door and crosses the street into the cemetery opposite, where ghosts take him in. What mystery/horror/suspense reader could stop here, especially with Gaiman’s talent for storytelling? The author riffs on the Jungle Book , folklore, nursery rhymes and history; he tosses in werewolves and hints at vampires—and he makes these figures seem like metaphors for transitions in childhood and youth. As the boy, called Nobody or Bod, grows up, the killer still stalking him, there are slack moments and some repetition—not enough to spoil a reader’s pleasure, but noticeable all the same. When the chilling moments do come, they are as genuinely frightening as only Gaiman can make them, and redeem any shortcomings.
Publishers Weekly 2008

And it is appropriate too. Don’t let the fact that the first sentence in the book (“There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife”) put you off. The murder of Bod’s family is swift, immediate, and off-screen. What remains is just a great fantasy novel that has the potential to appeal to both boy and girl readers. Kid wants a ghost story? Check. Kid wants a fantasy novel set in another world appropriate for Harry Potter fans? Check. Kid wants a “good book”. That’s my favorite request. When the eleven-year-old comes up to my desk and begs for “a good book” I can just show them the cover and the title of this puppy and feel zero guilt when their little eyes light up. A good book it is.
School Library Journal 2008

LIBRARY USES

Halloween time, definitely. I think the best use of this would be a book talk with middle school aged kids, paired with Gaiman’s other book for young adults, Coraline. Those two books paired together would be good for both boys and girls — I would present the chapter about the ghost of the witch as the hook.

REFERENCES

Bird, E. (2008, August 6). Review of the day: The graveyard book. School Library Journal. Retrieved from SLJ.com website: http://blog.schoollibraryjournal.com/afuse8production/2008/08/06/review-of-the-day-the-graveyard-book-by-neil-gaiman/

Gaiman, N. (2008). The graveyard book. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Publishers Weekly. (2008, September 29). Children’s review: The graveyard book. Retrieved from PublishersWeekly.com website: http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-06-053092-1

Comment » | SLIS5420

41. Lord of the Flies by William Golding

April 13th, 2011 — 2:53pm

Nothing scares me more than evil children. Any movie that is advertised as featuring a possessed child, or a creepy child, or a murderous child will not be getting my popcorn and jujubee money. So just the summary of Lord of the Flies gives me the creeps: “British schoolchildren survive a plane crash on a desert island and have to form their own society, but their island utopia soon turns to chaos.” No good can come of British schoolchildren being stranded on a deserted island. No good.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding was published in 1954, in the midst of the Cold War. The beginning of the novel explains that the plane is evacuating the students from Britain; there is a subtle nod to a nuclear-esque war going on and the plane has been shot down by a nameless enemy. Two of the children (who range in age from about 6 to 14) are the first characters on the beach — Ralph and the unfortunately named Piggy, who is chubby and has asthma and glasses. Poor Piggy doesn’t stand a chance on the playground, much less on a deserted island.

Ralph and Piggy find a conch shell on the beach and blow it to alert any other survivors to their whereabouts. Kids start coming towards them from all directions, including a large group of kids in identical choir robes. The head of the choirboys, Jack, makes himself known pretty quickly and he and Ralph discuss the need for an organized plan. Jack makes the argument for himself in possibly one of my favorite election speeches ever:

“I ought to be chief,” said Jack with simple arrogance, “because I’m chapter chorister and head boy. I can sing C sharp.”

Somehow the boys are unconvinced that the ability to sing C sharp is a valuable life skill for getting rescued off an island, and they vote Ralph to be the leader. Ralph, in order to keep the choir boys from performing a mutiny, suggests that Jack and the Choir Boys work as an army and hunt for the group — maybe not the best idea, in hindsight.

Ralph, Jack, and a boy named Simon walk around and determine that they’re on an island and that there are no discernible signs of human civilization; they find tracks in the sand, but they’re animal tracks, there is no village smoke or boats on the shore. They find a piglet that they catch and Jack attempts to kill it with a knife; however, once he raises his arm in the air to stab it, he hesitates over the enormity of the act of killing a living creature and the pig gets away. In typical boy fashion, Jack promises that the next time there will be no mercy on whatever animal is under his knife.

When they get back to the others, they make their rules of the island — have fun and try to be rescued. They start a fire using Piggy’s glasses and maintaining the fire becomes the number one priority. They also establish a rule that when they are meeting together, whoever is holding the conch shell is the one who gets to talk. The conch comes to represent the attempts at civilization and order.

As the novel goes on, the Big Three of Ralph, Jack, and Simon begin to take over different roles of leadership; Jack takes the choir boys and becomes in charge of hunting the pigs on the island for meat, and Simon takes control of building shelters, as well as defending and protecting the younger boys. Piggy becomes an outcast; the older boys don’t take him seriously, even though (and probably because) he is a voice a reason, and the younger kids follow suit and make fun of him.

Several things happen to the boys that threatens their fragile civilization. The initial fire that they build by focusing sunlight through Piggy’s glasses is ignored while the kids play on the beach, and the fire gets out of control and burns all of their firewood. After the fire, one of the “littluns” disappears after the fire and is never seen again, presumably burned to death from the fire. On another occasion, Jack and the Choir Boys go off to hunt when they’re supposed to be watching the signal fire. Ralph and Piggy are on the beach, and they see a ship pass by, but when they get back to the fire to make a smoke signal, the fire has died out. Ralph accuses Jack, who has just returned triumphantly with a killed pig whose throat he slit, of letting the fire die. Jack and the Choir Boys, with face paint on their faces and blood still on the knife, are too preoccupied with the excitement and adrenaline rush of their first kill, and they put on a frenzied, crazed recreation of the hunt. Piggy tells Jack that he shouldn’t have left the fire and Jack punches Piggy in the stomach and then slaps him in the face hard enough to make Piggy’s glasses fly off and break one of the lenses.

Ralph calls an assembly to try to get their heads in the game and focus on their main goal: keeping the fire up so they can be rescued. At the meeting, the littluns start talking about their fear of a beast living on the island. Jack, with his usual sensitive nature, states that there is no beast, and he should know, as he’d covered every inch of the island during their hunts. Piggy brings up the point that there is no beast on the island and no reason to fear anything other than people (enter ominous music here). The littluns insist that there’s a beast; some say that it comes out of the sea, some say that it lurks in the caves, and they all agree that it comes out at night. Jack, in a moment that brings chaos to the meeting, speaks without holding the conch and declares that if there’s a beast, he and his boys will hunt it down. At this, the meeting splinters, with boys running away in all directions, leaving Ralph, Piggy, and Simon watching after them fearfully, discussing what “the grownups would think” if they could see how quick to violence and chaos the boys all are.

That night, there is an air battle over them, and a parachutist falls to the ground while the boys are all asleep. Two of the boys, twins who are interchangeable and are therefore known collectively as “SamnEric”, wake up and see the parachute fluttering; they panic, convinced that the beast has come in from the air. Ralph, Jack, and some of the hunters agree to go and look for the beast. On the search, they come across a wild boar and they try to catch it. When it gets away, they make a pretend hunting circle, enclosing on one of the boys, Robert, and pretend that they’re hunting him. They engage in their hunting ritual, which includes a chant:

“Kill the pig! Cut his throat! Kill the pig! Bash him in!”

Creepy kids. Not okay.

The hunters from the 1990 movie. Aka, the best form of birth control available. Do not want these evil children.

Ralph and Jack go up the mountain and see what looks like “a great ape” asleep in one of the trees. They run back to the other boys and report back that they found the beast. While they’re discussing what to do, Jack declares that he’s no longer going to follow Ralph; Ralph is too preoccupied with his precious little fire and he’s a coward, so he’s going to take his hunters and kill the beast. When the other boys don’t elect to remove Ralph’s power, Jack calls his hunters and they run off to the beach. Ralph gets the other boys to help him rebuild the fire, but by the time they’ve finished, most of the boys have defected and joined Jack’s tribe. Ralph notices that Simon is gone as well, to which Piggy replies, “He’s cracked.”

Simon has gone off on his own to look for the beast. He finds a gift for the beast that Jack and the Choir Boys made, which is the head of one of the pigs killed by Jack that they impaled on a stick; it is covered in flies, and Simon thinks of it as “Lord of the Flies.” He has indeed cracked. The Lord of the Flies begins to talk to him and it is the creepiest thing yet:

“You are a silly little boy,” said the Lord of the Flies, “just an ignorant, silly little boy.”

Simon moved his swollen tongue but said nothing.

“Don’t you agree?” said the Lord of the Flies. “Aren’t you just a silly little boy?”

Simon answered him in the same silent voice.

“Well then,” said the Lord of the Flies,” you’d better run off and play with the others. They think you’re batty. You don’t want Ralph to think you’re batty, do you? You like Ralph a lot, don’t you? And Piggy, and Jack?”

Simon’s head was tilted slightly up. His eyes could not break away and the Lord of the Flies hung in space before him.

“What are you doing out here all alone? Aren’t you afraid of me?”

Simon shook.

“There isn’t anyone to help you. Only me. And I’m the Beast.”

Simon’s mouth labored, brought forth audible words.

“Pig’s head on a stick.”

“Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill! You knew, didn’t you?” said the head. For a moment or two the forest and all the other dimly appreciated places echoed with the parody of laughter. “You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close! I’m the reason why it’s no go? Why things are what they are?”

And then Simon faints. Thank god. I don’t know how much more of that conversation I could take.

When he wakes up, he sees that the flies have moved to a different spot. He sees that it’s the body of the parachutist that became tangled in the tree and realizes that the dead body is what Ralph and Jack thought was the beast. He rushes back to the other boys to tell them that it’s harmless and that they’re mistaken.

Meanwhile, Ralph and Piggy have gone to find Jack and the others, seeing as how there are no boys left in Ralph’s tribe. They find them on the beach, painted with face paint and looking dirty and wild. And crazy. When it starts to rain, they form a circle and do their weird little hunting game, pretending that the boy Roger is a pig. Ralph and Piggy find themselves unable to resist the game and join in. The boys start chanting:

“Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood!”

Simon bursts through the woods, shouting to them about the man in the trees, and the boys, in their bloodlust and mob mentality, mistake him for the beast. They form a new circle around “the beast.” Simon stumbles on the beach, and they attack and kill him with their bare hands and teeth. Then the mob breaks up and the boys all wander away, leaving Simon’s body bleeding and dead in the rain. As it rains, the tide rises and washes Simon’s body off the beach and into the ocean.

Ralph and Piggy, now that the spell of the mob has broken, are horrified that they took part in the murder of Simon. Jack, on the other hand, is not so upset. He and his tribe have taken solace in a place they call Castle Rock, where he is holding court like a dictator. Jack has decided that his tribe deserves a fire, so they are going to sneak to Ralph and Piggy’s camp and steal Piggy’s glasses. All that is left of Ralph’s tribe is Ralph, Piggy, and the twins Sam and Eric, so the security on the place is rather subpar. The boys pretend to be the beast and attack them, stealing the glasses in the chaos. Once the glasses are stolen, Ralph plans to steal them back.

Ralph, Piggy, Sam, and Eric go to Jack’s tribe and Ralph accuses Jack of being a thief. Apparently even on a deserted island this is a disrespect that will not be tolerated, as Jack calls for Sam and Eric to be tied up in order to show Ralph that he can basically do whatever he wants; his “painted savages” are completely loyal to him. One of the boys, Roger, was up on the rock and was dropping stones on them. Piggy, frustrated with all of this foolishness, grabs the conch and appeals to the boys:

“I got this to say. You’re acting like a crowd of kids.”

The booing rose and died again as Piggy lifted the white, magic shell.

“Which is better — to be a pack of painted Indians like you are, or to be sensible like Ralph is?”

A great clamor rose among the savages. Piggy shouted again.

“Which is better — to have rules and agree, or to hunt and kill?”

The boys decided that yeah, hunting is better than law, as they cornered Ralph and Piggy and readied themselves for an attack. Roger intensified his rock throwing and caused a boulder to fall down on top of them.

Ralph heard the great rock long before he saw it. He was aware of a jolt in the earth that came to him through the soles of his feet, and the breaking sound of stones at the top of the cliff. Then the monstrous red thing bounded across the neck and he flung himself flat while the tribe shrieked.

The rock struck Piggy a glancing blow from chin to knee; the conch exploded into a thousand white fragments and ceased to exist. Piggy, saying nothing, with no time for even a grunt, travelled through the air sideways from the rock, turning over as he went. The rock bounded twice and was lost in the forest. Piggy fell forty feet and landed on his back across that square, red rock in the sea. His head opened and stuff came out and turned red. Piggy’s arms and legs twitched a bit, like a pig’s after it has been killed. Then the sea breathed again in a long, slow sigh, the water boiled white and pink over the rock; and when it went, sucking back again, the body of Piggy was gone.

This time the silence was complete. Ralph’s lips formed a word but no sound came.

With the shattering of the conch and Piggy’s death comes the total loss of any shred of humanity that Jack and the boys might have still had. Ralph barely escapes as they hurl spears at him. The boys, namely Roger, torture Sam and Eric for not joining their tribe in the first place. Ralph hides all night and day while the boys hunt him like an animal. He runs into Sam and Eric on the beach, and they tell him that the boys forced them to join the tribe and for Ralph to get away while he can. Apparently Roger has sharpened a stick at both ends and it has Ralph’s name on it. Ralph hides in the forest and Jack decides to smoke him out; he has the boys set the trees on fire. Ralph is driven to the beach by screaming savages with spears. He falls to the sand and covers himself with his arms to try to protect himself.

When he gets to his feet, a British naval officer is standing on the beach, staring at Ralph with a “what the hell is going on here?” look. They saw the smoke from the burning forest and came to the island to investigate. A group of the tribe, “their bodies streaked with colored clay, sharp sticks in their hands,” emerged from the forest, and the officer asks if they’ve been having “fun and games.” When Ralph tells him that two of the boys have been killed, the officer replies that he would have thought better of a pack of British boys.

Ralph looked at him dumbly. For a moment he had a fleeting picture of the strange glamour that had once invested the beaches. But the island was scorched up like dead wood — Simon was dead — and Jack had…

The tears began to flow and sobs shook him. He gave himself up to them now for the first time on the island; great, shuddering spasms of grief that seemed to wrench his whole body. His voice rose under the black smoke before the burning wreckage of the island; and infected by that emotion, the other little boys began to shake and sob too. And in the middle of them, with filthy body, matted hair, and unwiped nose, Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.

The officer, surrounded by these noises, was moved and a little embarrassed. He turned away to give them time to pull themselves together; and waited, allowing his eyes to rest on the trim cruiser in the distance.

This book is an interesting argument for society — how long does it take civilization to fall apart, what does power or the lack of power do to a person, how does mob mentality influence people to do horrible things, where does the line between emotional and rational responses break down.

Ralph has good intentions for the group and is described as having natural leadership, even if his ideas aren’t always implemented well. He is nonviolent in contrast to Jack’s violence. He takes the leadership role very seriously and tries to set rules and procedures in order; the use of the conch shell during their assemblies, for example.

Piggy is the scientific mind of the group, very logical and rational. He is also the most set on having a civilization; he takes the conch shell with them on the raid of Jack’s tribe and insists on using it to speak to the savage boys. He acts as Ralph’s adviser, as he is the one with the ideas but no sense of leadership and none of the boys take him seriously. He demands order and has an adult sense of reason; he finds it hard to believe that the savage boys of Jack’s tribe would rather hunt and kill rather than be rescued and have order. His death signifies the final spiral into chaos.

Jack is the epitome of human nature when exposed to anarchy and chaos. Though he rather begrudgingly agrees to Ralph as the leader, he slowly takes over more and more power as the leader of the hunting choir boys. He also primal and masculine qualities that aren’t apparent in the other boys, which might be due to his being one of the older boys — when he is unable to kill the first pig they find, due to the potential trauma of ending a life, he feels shame and compensates by vowing to hunt until he kills something, even going so far as to abandoning the fire in order to hunt. His blood lust gets more intense and irrational. He and the hunters begin to paint themselves with body paint, shedding their humanity as they shed their clothes. As more of the boys give over to their primal natures, they leave Ralph’s tribe and join Jack.

Simon represents peace and humanity (see: Jesus figure). Simon takes care and calms the younger children when they’re having their nightmares and he keeps the older kids from teasing them. He is in tune with nature and the ocean, and that is why he has such an adverse reaction to seeing the pig’s head and hallucinates the Lord of the Flies (which happens to be the English translation of “Beelzebub,” a demon synonymous with Satan). His hallucination reveals the truth of the beast to him, and when he tries to explain it to the others, he’s savagely murdered, bringing about the loss of the truth and the boys’ innocence.

The arrival of the naval officer represents the adult authoritative influence on children: what was once a savage hunt and murder is reduced to “fun and games.” As the boys are crying, the officer looks away from the boys and towards his own battleship, juxtaposing the brutality of the children’s experiences on the island with the brutality of the adults’ experiences in war.

Whenever people talk about possibly lowering the drinking age or giving kids more responsibility, Lord of the Flies is immediately what I think of. Kids are not to be trusted with anything other than stuffed animals and need to have good solid role models that will teach them to not to try to kill each other with sharp sticks. I’m looking at you, Kid Nation.

All in all, this book is a study in why I will never have children. The possibility of the kids mutinying and chasing after me with sticks and face paint? No thank you.

4 comments » | modern

4. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

January 31st, 2011 — 12:31am

Lolita by Vladmir Nabokov was published in New York in 1958. It has been controversial and debated ever since.

The book is about a man, Humbert Humbert (a pseudonym he has chosen for himself), who is obsessed with nymphets, or sexually precocious girls. He blames this obsession on the death of his childhood sweetheart, Annabel Leigh. Because he was in love with her and she died at a young age, he subconciously searches for her to love again, and instead finds young girls who remind him of her. Humbert rents a house from Charlotte Haze, who just happens to have a 12 year old daughter named Dolores. Humbert immediately becomes infatuated with Dolores (who is also called also known as Dolly, Lolita, Lola, Lo, and L throughout the novel, try to keep up), and remains in the house to be near her.

Meanwhile, Charlotte, Lolita’s mother, begins to fall in love with Humbert. While Lolita is away at summer camp, she tells him that he has to either marry her or move out of the house. He agrees to marry Charlotte, even though he does not care for her and actually sort of pities her, so that he can remain close to Lolita. Charlotte remains unaware of Humbert’s creeper tendencies until she discovers his diary, in which he waxes poetic about his feelings for Lolita. Needless to say, she is horrified and makes plans to get her and her daughter as far away from Humbert as possible. Unfortunately, before she can do that or tell anyone what she’s discovered about Humbert, she’s hit by a car and killed.

Humbert picks up Lolita at camp; he tells the counselors that Charlotte is ill and is in the hospital. Once he has Lolita, he takes her to a hotel and attempts to give her sleeping pills in order to molest her more easily. The pills fail to work on her, but it’s okay! Because Lolita actually initiates sex with Humbert. It turns out that Lolita is already sexually active, as she had sex with a boy at her summer camp. And she’s still 12, by the way. Just saying.

Ignore the sunglasses and the lollipop. She is still 12.

Humbert finally tells Lolita that her mother is dead, and she realizes that there’s not really much else to do other than to accept her new life with her “stepfather” (EW). While at the hotel, they meet a strange man who seems to know them. Humbert is nervous about this, and decides that they need to take their show on the road.

Humbert and Lolita create a new life as nomads; they travel around from motel to motel with Humbert keeping Lolita disciplined by equally threatening to send her away to reform school and bribing her with sexual favors, even though he knows that she doesn’t love him like she does. Gee, I wonder why. They finally settle down in New England and Lolita is enrolled in school with Humbert assuming the role of the overbearing strict parent; Lolita is not allowed to participate in extracurriculars at school or associate with boys. The neighbors see his rules as the sign of a strict and loving parent. If only they knew how loving.

Lolita convinces Humbert to allow her to be in a school play by granting him more sexual favors. The play is by a man named Clare Quilty, who says that he saw Lolita’s acting and was inspired to write the play. However, on opening night, Humbert and Lolita have a fight and Lolita says that she wants to leave town again. When they leave, Humbert feels like someone is following them; he’s suspicious that Lolita is conspiring against him to leave him. She claims that she’s ill and is taken to a hospital while Humbert stays in a nearby hotel. When he goes to visit her, the hospital staff tells him that Lolita’s uncle has checked her out.

Uh oh.

Years pass, and one day Humbert receives a letter from the now 17 year old Lolita. She writes that she’s married, pregnant, and in desperate need of money. He meets with her, and she tells him that Clare Quilty was an acquaintance of Charlotte’s, and he checked her out of the hospital and attempted to make her star in one of his pornographic films; when she refused, he threw her out. She worked odd jobs before meeting and marrying her husband. She claims that her new husband knows nothing about her past and she intends to keep it that way.

Humbert, always the lecher, asks Lolita to leave her husband and return to him. He promises that it’ll be different this time! We’ll have a good life together! She refuses, because she has at least half a brain. Humbert leaves Lolita and finds and kills Quilty at his mansion. He then is arrested for driving on the wrong side of the road and swerving.

The narrative closes with Humbert’s final words to Lolita in which he wishes her well, and reveals the novel has been the memoirs of his life, only to be published after he and Lolita have both died.

Lolita gets a bad rap. If you can look past the pedophilia (which most people can’t), it is a very good book, at least in a literary sense. Nabokov was fond of wordplay and intricate details, and he uses many double entendres, puns, anagrams, and invents words throughout this book (nymphet is one example). He uses allusions to other authors, specifically Edgar Allan Poe (the name of Humbert’s childhood love, the use of doppleganger that occurs with Humbert and Clare Quilty). Many literary critics and scholars have found deeper meanings in the work, including interpretations that the book represents totalitarianism from Nabokov’s native Russia or the idea that the novel is about discovering your own identity when it has been taken over by someone else.

Nabokov was also a synesthete. That has nothing to do with the book, but it’s interesting anyway.

Comment » | modern

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

April 16th, 2010 — 7:22pm

So I kind of cheated this week.

There was a release of a new printing of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle with an Edward Gorey-esque cover that was irresistible. So I forsook The Ginger Man briefly and read that instead.  Ooops.

Most people are familiar with Shirley Jackson by either her short story “The Lottery,” in which a seemingly modern village holds an annual lottery to choose who will be sacrificed and stoned to death by the townspeople, or her novel turned Owen Wilson/Catherine Zeta-Jones/Liam Neeson movie The Haunting of Hill House. And if you are familiar with those works, you know that the Shirley Jackson oeuvre can be downright creepy.

Such is the case with We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which opens with the narrator, Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood, stating that the villagers have always hated them (them being Merricat, her sister Constance, and their Uncle Julian Blackwood). Indeed, the first chapter goes on to describe Merricat making her weekly errand run in the village and being harrassed by children and adults alike, the children who taunt her with a playground rhyme:

Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!

The rhymes origin is from an event at the Blackwood house that occurred six years earlier — one night at dinner, the girls’ parents, their younger brother, and Uncle Julian’s wife were all murdered by arsenic that had been mixed into the sugar bowl and used by the family to sprinkle sugar over their dessert of blackberries. The only ones to survive were Merricat, who had been sent to bed without supper, Uncle Julian, who didn’t use a lot of sugar but has been ill from aftereffects of the poison since then, and Constance, who never took sugar on her berries. Because Constance fixed the dinner and had washed the sugar bowl, she was the main suspect, even going through a murder trial until she was acquitted of the charge.  However, the people of the village still believe that Constance was the murderer and have since ostracized the family, turning Constance into an agoraphobe; she hasn’t left the confines of the house and the yard in six years.

And so they have lived in their somewhat peaceful existence. Merricat is a bit of a feral child, or at least a whimsical one — she makes little protection spells by nailing her father’s old things to a tree or burying things, like a box of silver dollars, and she runs around the land around the house with her cat, Jonas. Constance seems to spend her day cooking, taking care of Uncle Julian, and shaking her head and saying, “Silly Merricat.”

But of course, there is a change in the air. The change in question is the sudden arrival of their cousin Charles, who claims to be their father’s brother’s son. He tells them that his father would never allow him to contact them while he was alive, but now that his father is dead, he has come to do his family duty by showing up at the their house, moving himself into their father’s old room, appraising all of their things, and making thinly veiled threats to Merricat, who is instantly suspicious of him:

“Cousin Charles?” I said, and he turned to look at me. I thought of seeing him dead. “Cousin Charles?”
“Well?”
“I have decided to ask you to please go away.”
“All right,” he said. “You asked me.”
“Please will you go away?”
“No,” he said…”As a matter of fact,” he said, “come about a month from now, I wonder who will be here? You,” he said, “or me?”

Okay, maybe not so thinly veiled. But Merricat retaliates by listing all of the poisonous mushrooms in their yard, so that shuts him up for a while.

Charles argues with Uncle Julian, who is constantly confused between what is and what isn’t reality (at one point, he says that “my niece Mary Katherine died in the orphanage of neglect” when she’s standing in the room with him, which makes you wonder for a split second if you’re having a “The Sixth Sense” moment), and Merricat runs off to their old family shed and talks with her dead family members, who all fawn over her in a way that is super super creepy. She returns to the house for dinner, and when Constance sends her upstairs to wash her hands for dinner, she notices Charles has left a lit pipe in his room. She pushes it into the wastebasket that is filled with newspapers and innocently reports to the table for dinner.

Of course, a fire breaks out and Charles freaks out and runs to the village to get help, as if the fire burns down the home, then where would he get any more money? The villagers come to help, but they are overcome by the mob mentality and their hatred and fear of the Blackwoods, and they begin destroying the downstairs rooms, breaking and smashing things, all the while chanting the playground rhyme. Constance and Merricat hide in the woods, where they can watch and listen to the mob from a safe distance. Charles attempts to steal the family safe and it’s reported that Uncle Julian has died, presumably of a heart attack. While they’re watching the chaos, Merricat lays a bomb:

…and I said aloud to Constance, “I am going to put death in all their food and watch them die.”
Constance stirred, and the leaves rustled. “The way you did before?” she asked.
It had never been spoken of between us, not once in six years.
“Yes,” I said after a minute, “the way I did before.”

Wait…..WHAT!?

Yes. It turns out that Merricat was the one who poisoned and killed her family. But that’s really all that the book gives you. There’s no explanation, no reasoning behind it. Just an admission that’s almost an aside. All she says is that she put it in the sugar because she knew that Constance never took sugar. I don’t even know.

After the villagers leave, Constance and Merricat go back to the house and salvage what is left. Only the rooms in the top floor of the house burned, so they make do with the bottom floor and whatever material goods they have that the villagers didn’t destroy. Speaking of the villagers, they appear to be contrite about how they’ve treated the girls and begin to leave offerings of food and casseroles on their front porch. Constance waits until the cover of darkness to retrieve them, to make sure they’re really gone and no one can see them. The sisters live in the house on their own, and the final lines of the novel are:

“Poor strangers,” I said. “They have so much to be afraid of.”
“Well,” Constance said, “I am afraid of spiders.”
“Jonas and I will see to it that no spider ever comes near you. Oh, Constance,” I said, “we are so happy.”

Um, yeah. Okay.

To me, the most frustrating thing was the lack of explanation of the family’s murders. Merricat is a textbook example of an unreliable narrator. She’s eighteen years old, but has definite childlike qualities, such as her “protection spells” and the way she plays in the yard and in some ways the way she talks to Constance. But does that have something to do with the reason behind her poisoning the sugar? There was obviously some sort of intent behind it, as she tells Constance that she purposefully chose the sugar because she knew that Constance wouldn’t eat it. And, hi, why is Constance not freaked out about her little sister being a killer? The language is very straight forward, which also adds to the appearance of Merricat being an innocent child. Until she starts listing off how many ways she can poison you.

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